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Fighting Global Warming Will Improve Health of People Everywhere

Climate

What if we could reduce worldwide deaths from disease, starvation and disaster while improving the health of people everywhere? According to the World Health Organization, we can.

“Previously unrecognized health benefits could be realized from fast action to reduce climate change and its consequences,” says a news release about WHO’s first global conference on health and climate in Geneva Aug. 27 to 29, adding, “changes in energy and transport policies could save millions of lives annually from diseases caused by high levels of air pollution.” Encouraging people to use public transit, cycling and walking instead of driving would cut traffic injuries and vehicle emissions and promote better health through increased physical activity.

Beyond forestalling the almost-certain catastrophic consequences of unchecked global warming, changing our habits, conserving energy and shifting from fossil fuels to clean energy will have many benefits for human health—and for the economy.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Reducing the threat of global warming and finding ways to adapt to unavoidable change will also help people around the world “deal with the impact of heat, extreme weather, infectious disease and food insecurity.”

Climate change affects human health in multiple ways. Increased extreme weather causes flooding and droughts, which influences food production, water and sanitation. Pathogens that plague humans, livestock and crops spread more widely. WHO notes that diseases such as cholera, malaria and dengue are especially sensitive to weather and climate changes.

According to WHO, “Climate change is already causing tens of thousands of deaths every year from shifting patterns of disease, from extreme weather events, such as heat-waves and floods, and from the degradation of water supplies, sanitation, and impacts on agriculture” — and it will get worse if we fail to address the problem. The poor, elderly and children are most vulnerable.

WHO’s conference was held in advance of UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s Climate Summit 2014 for world leaders, taking place in New York Sept. 23, and geared partly toward ensuring world leaders come up with an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol at the Paris UN climate change conference next year.

Two days before the Climate Summit, on Sept. 21, more than half a million people are expected to gather in New York for the People’s Climate March, with simultaneous events around the world, co-ordinated by a coalition of more than 1,000 organizations, including environmental, social justice, religious, health and labour groups.

WHO’s conference and findings show the importance of getting health-care professionals on board with climate action, as they are with the People’s Climate March. “The evidence is overwhelming: climate change endangers human health,” says WHO director-general Margaret Chan. “Solutions exist and we need to act decisively to change this trajectory.”

In a Huffington Post article, Ban Ki-moon stresses that global warming is an immediate and urgent issue. “Instead of asking if we can afford to act, we should be asking what is stopping us, who is stopping us, and why?” he writes. “Let us join forces to push back against skeptics and entrenched interests. Let us support the scientists, economists, entrepreneurs and investors who can persuade government leaders and policy-makers that now is the time for action.”

Beyond forestalling the almost-certain catastrophic consequences of unchecked global warming, changing our habits, conserving energy and shifting from fossil fuels to clean energy will have many benefits for human health—and for the economy. Reducing the burden of pollution- and global warming–related health care costs is a big factor, but opportunities also exist in the clean technology sector. Climate Summit organizers point to the “growing recognition that affordable, scalable solutions are available now that will enable us all to leapfrog to cleaner, more resilient economies.

A leaked draft of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment’s final synthesis report concludes that global warming is already having major impacts worldwide and that, unless we do something about it, we can expect “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.” Our news media should be focusing on these issues rather than chasing an endless line of celebrity antics, corporate priorities and political posturing.

Scientists have warned about global warming consequences for decades, but efforts by fossil fuel interests to sow doubt and confusion, combined with intransigent governments and public apathy, have brought us to a tipping point.

The choice is clear: If we want to protect our health, our children’s and grandchildren’s health, and the natural systems that keep us alive and healthy, we must act now.

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The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.

"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."

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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."